Deconstructed Artichokes And How I Tackle Them

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This year we’ve had masses of globe artichokes. I have several different varieties growing at the allotment, probably with the notion (as suggested by gardener-cook Sarah Raven) that doing this would extend the cropping season. It hasn’t. Well, not by much.

My usual way of cooking artichokes (one each) is to split then down the middle, cutting from stem to tip, scoop out the choke, drizzle the cut edges with lemon juice to stop discolouration (optional), then steam the halves for around 20 minutes. While that’s happening I put a dish on the hob and melt a big nugget of butter with a couple of cloves of crushed garlic (sometimes butter and olive oil), and when the artichokes are done, spoon this ‘sauce’ into each hollow.

After that it’s all a matter of pulling off the scaly leaves, dipping their bases in the garlic butter pool and sucking. By the time one gets to the flat juicy base, there’s no point in opting for a knife and fork, we’re all too butter fingered and dribbly chinned. Though a slice of wholemeal bread at this point may come in handy for general mopping up.

It is all incredibly messy, the kind of eating that Graham refers to as an ‘all over body experience’ and one that requires a thorough ‘hosing down’ afterwards. You also need to have ready a big dish for the debris. This later goes to ‘feed’ the hot composting bin.

Anyway, there’s only so much hedonistic dining a body can take, and I was just getting to the point of wondering who else at the allotment might like to eat our artichokes when I remembered Francesco da Mosto’s Venice TV series (2004!) It included a scene of women traders preparing buckets of what Francesco referred to as  ‘artichoke bottoms’, these to be sold to Venetian cooks who couldn’t  be bothered to confront this often challenging vegetable.

Artichoke bottoms! It had to be tried. The only problem, I quickly discovered, is that you need an incredibly sharp knife. Also most of my green globe heads were  supporting an insectopolis of aphids, ants and earwigs that required some determined flushing out. After that it was down to the bread knife to get to the bottom of the bottom. At least it got part of the job done, though I regreted my lack of Venetian finesse.

And so the photo. There comes a point when hacking can devolve to peeling (watching out for spiny leaf tips). As I reached the middle of this particular artichoke, and rather strangely, the last leaves clicked open in unison like a mechanical flower, so revealing the hairy choke and also providing this rather good imitation of a water lily.

I did not photograph the bottoms. After all the battling with bugs and wielding the contents of my knife drawer, there was not much to show for eight heads’ worth of artichoke. They are anyway not very pretty and seem to discolour whether or not you put them in acidulated water. But never mind. I braised them gently in olive oil with crushed garlic and fresh chopped oregano, added sliced baby courgettes and garden peas and served them sprinkled with pandano cheese. Delicious and also eaten using appropriate cutlery, so avoiding the dribbling and hosing down elements of my usual method. Some, of course, might think this drawback.

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Square Perspective #3

Tales Of Second Breakfasts ~ Well If It’s Good Enough For Hobbits…

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This strawberry was yesterday’s first breakfast, eaten at around 5.45 a.m. when the early morning sun was already flooding the allotment with the beginnings of a heat wave. I don’t usually go gardening at this extraordinary hour; nor certainly feel like eating breakfast, but the weather people divined the day would be hot, so I left the house at 5.15, set on opening the polytunnel doors in hopes of creating some through ventilation. I also wanted to do a spot of emergency watering and mulching – the young sweet corn especially, but before that could happen the strawberry plot beckoned, and who was I to refuse this sunny mouthful of deliciousness. Or indeed the next several.

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Then I was distracted by the climbing peas. The day before, Lord Leicester had not been ready to pick, but suddenly he was. (It’s always problematical working out if a pod is actually full of grown-up peas: much gentle squeezing along the row).  Of course it was necessary to test the contents, so a pea course followed the fruit course (and I can report that they too were very juicy). Then I spent the next twenty minutes picking peas. There was quite a haul for a first picking. Good show, milord!

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After that it was time for some proper work, the intended watering and mulching, the chopping of garden refuse for the compost bins. Next came an interlude of enviromesh wrestling, this with the aim of ensuring that the red cabbages and Tuscan kale were well protected from Cabbage White butterflies – their cohorts now conspicuously abroad from a recent hatching. This job is always an enormous faff (finding enough tent pegs, checking the hoops are tall enough to give the crops room, and the mesh wide enough in both dimensions to cover them while leaving sufficient all-round margin for a complete brassica lock-down). I always have to put myself on notice to get this done, even though I know it’s utterly worth doing.

A reward for objective accomplished was to check if there were any new potatoes ready. I have to say this is ever one of the most exciting activities of the gardening year – rootling under a potato plant to see what’s what. Given our rainless spring I wasn’t expecting much of a crop from the first earlies, but here they are:  Pentland Javelin and just enough of them for two:

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As the morning grew ever warmer, the church clock struck the hours, and sounds of domestic awakening along nearby Southfield Road drifted over the allotment hedge. Now and then I would look up to see that another gardener had arrived quietly on their plot. Somehow people move about differently in the early morning: something slightly mesmeric as they go about their tasks; almost as if they are treading quietly on the grass paths: not wanting to disturb or be disturbed.

I chatted briefly with my plot neighbour when he arrived to fill his water butts, and we talked of the sample results from the soil test he had arranged on our mutual plots: very alkaline; very high in organic matter; but soil verging on the ‘very (as in too) heavy’. Action needed: lots of sand and potash to be added. He said how pleased he was discover that potential fertility was high. And I remembered that we should have known this, despite our often paltry crop results. This quarter of Much Wenlock where the allotment lies has been known as the Wheatlands for centuries, and still the crop is grown here, despite the heavy ground.

And soon five hours had passed, by which time I was very hungry for something other than peas and strawberries, and desperate for a mug of tea. Home then across Townsend Meadow where at 9.15 the present-day wheat already had a dreamy, heat-hazy air. As I go, I think not only of a second breakfast, but how very pleased Graham will be when I show him the spuds.

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Top Crop ~ The Big Cauliflower Ambush

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Many may not know this, but cauliflowers are the sneakiest vegetables – not to say the most covert in their growing habits. You may watch over them for months – from plantlet module to big leafy crown; you may peer frequently into their tight green hearts, even peel back a few leaves, and there will not be the smallest signs of a cauli. Then one day – last Monday to be exact -THIS HAPPENS!

I was just leaving the allotment polytunnel after my usual late-day visit, and thought I caught a glimpse of curd in the corner bed. When I pulled back the monster leaves there is was,  the size of a football and utterly perfect. How could I not have noticed it sooner? Did it grow overnight like Jack’s beanstalk?

I don’t usually grow cauliflowers in my polytunnel, but back in the autumn when I bought the modules, I had three weedy ones left over from my outside planting, and thought I’d try them under cover. When I go up to the allotment today there may well be two more like this.

The problem with cauliflowers’ sneaky habits when grown outdoors is that by the time you discover curds big enough to harvest, more often than not they have already been found by slugs and earwigs (also sneaky) and been well nibbled under the cover of leafiness.

Anyway, I guess a lot of you might not find cauliflowers especially appealing. But there are many approaches besides the usual cauliflower cheese. Grated raw and briefly sauteed in oil it makes a good rice substitute. Steamed and pureed cauli is also delicious (spot of cream and chopped herbs added). And the whole head can be sliced into 1” thick steaks, given a good olive oiling/seasoning, and roasted in a hot oven for 35 mins, turning after 20mins. I also tried this the other day with celeriac and it was brilliant served with a mushroom strogonoff sauce. I’m thinking one of the polytunnel caulis might be in for similar treatment this evening.

The next photo is just to give you an ideal of the scale of leaf disguise adopted by this paricular cauli. I had to peel off masses take this portrait, and rather wished I had some livestock to feed them too i.e. rather than the compost bin microbes.

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Square Tops #23

The Deconstructed Top-Knot?

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When we walked into town yesterday down the Cutlins path we pleased to see members of the McMoo clan back in the meadow. And a little family group by the looks of it – daddy, mummy and junior McMoo.

And the parents all but canoodling while offspring was exploring the peripheries of the town’s electricity substation.

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On the return trip, shopping accomplished, we found the local jackdaws had discovered the McMoos too. They were busy plucking the bull’s winter coat for a spot of nest building material.

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Square Tops #12

Over Large Pigeon Alights On Small Crab Apple Tree And…

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…has to do some very serious pondering as to how to pick the apples without falling off the tree. So here we see the thought processes of a problem-solving pigeon as viewed from the kitchen door.

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Success?

Well no. Pigeons can’t chew or swallow  whole crab apples, though this morning I watched one have a darn good try. (Appropriate procedure for dealing with a choked pigeon anyone?)

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Finally, after much deliberation, the hard won prize was ejected. More pondering ensued.

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More gymnastics.

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Better leave it to the blackbird then. He does have the right kit for crab apple harvesting.

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January Light 10

Beneath The Sheltering Thorns

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Our almost-spring has reverted to winteriness today, so it’s back to the old Africa album for Square 22 and a bit of midday heat. Am imagining too the smell of the bush –  spicy sundried grasses and hot peppery earth – and in my head the seamless kroo-krooing of doves. And because it has amused me ever since I heard it from a tipsy guide in Zambia, I make no apologies for repeating it again here: when it comes to zebras’ butticles, he told us, each has its own unique set of stripes. He further suggested that this was how the offspring recognised their mothers. I have no idea if this is true, but am happy to go along with it if only for the butticles, since they sound more decorous than buttocks and so have remained discriptor of choice in the Farrell household when referring to that particular part of the anatomy. And anyway, zebras do sport such very handsome ones.

Spiky Squares #22

Today The Weather Feels Like This

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Country lore has it that if March comes in like a lion it will leave like a lamb. Well roll on flocks of little ovine entities. As I write this, the wind is roaring up over the Edge, and blowing right through the house even though all the windows are shut. And IT IS ICY. And outside,  it is blow-you-over gale force across the field with intermittent fierce rain squalls. Yet the BBC weather people claim that here in our corner of Shropshire we are currently having ‘sunny intervals with a fresh breeze’. In support of this contention, they have staked out their hourly weather map with a row of sunny-cloud icons. It’s a sign of the times of course. You can no longer trust a single mediated report, not matter how supposedly trustworthy the source. Wear more vests, that’s my advice. And balaclavas.

Photo: Bin bag and barbed wire, St Bride’s Bay, Pembroke, March 2018

Spiky Square #9

Six Word Saturday